Social Work Spotlight: Meet PhD Student Sarah Scantamburlo

Not addressing stigma means that our silent friends, family members, and neighbors will continue to suffer in silence. I cannot stand to see this happen to another person.

Sarah Scantamburlo smilingAs a 3-time kidney transplant recipient, Wayne State University School of Social Work Doctoral Program student Sarah Scantamburlo saw the immeasurable impact that social workers had on the entire organ donation process with the hospital system. "I was surrounded by patients that did not have the educational opportunities that I had or the supportive family to navigate things when they were not feeling well. The social workers were leaders, cheerleaders, and advocates for so many people that were confused and shaken by the process. Seeing their grit and determination in action forged for me the path that I am on today."

Sarah currently holds a bachelor of arts (with honors), social science, creative writing and literature and Spanish proficiency from the University of Michigan Residential College, a master of social work from the University of Michigan School of Social Work and a master of science - physician assistant studies from the University of Detroit Mercy. Prior to obtaining her MSW, Sarah pursued a degree in law; however, she did not feel impassioned or emboldened when sitting in class. "I knew there was something missing and being a lawyer was not my calling. I was great at memorizing cases, but it felt empty. I want to believe I have a higher purpose or calling, perhaps and I believe social work will get me there."

What drew you to Wayne State?

Academia and application often exist in silos from each other. WSU is in the heart of Detroit and has its pulse on the academic pursuit of research, but also understands the needs and value of the community that is serves. I know what I am learning in the classroom can be directly applicable in my workplace setting. This distinctive balance is an enormous draw for any student seeking to make their unique impact in the world.

How has the PhD program been beneficial to you?

When I started the program, I thought that I would be finessing my current knowledge base; little did I know this slice of academia would completely change my vision. The PhD program has given me a set of tools to embrace problems and seek them as opportunities to employ solutions, rather than shrink from change or conflict. I know how to better arm myself with research, critically assess statistics, and recognize I have the skills to lead the change and not merely follow. To be frank, it is impossible to find the right words to express my gratitude for the intellect and confidence that the professors I have had helped to foster within me.

What is the focus of your research?

Mental health stigma- I want to understand how we can eradicate stigma.

According to, one in five adult Americans live with a mental illness, yet 60 percent of those individuals don't receive any mental health services - often due to stigma and the associated shame (2020). The fear of how family and employers/coworkers will react is often a driving force for individuals with mental illness to try to handle it on their own (F. S. Dingfedler, 2009). This needs to change.

Why is it important?

I am a Psychiatric Physician Assistant. I diagnose and treat people living with a multitude of mental health disorders. When I was in school there were not separate buildings for physical health and mental health - it was all taught within the same building, from the same book. Then we enter a society where these areas bifurcate and appear to run in completely different directions.

This is not how this works. This is not how I treat people. I treat the entire person. Many people with mental health issues are socially maligned and set up in a sense for failure by a system that has failed them infinitely. People are not a disease. They are not their symptoms. We all deserve to live happy and healthy. Many of the people that I treat say that they wish they got help earlier and that they see how their symptoms presented decades prior, but they were paralyzed by stigma. They did not want to be disowned by their families, friends, churches, or societies. Instead, they limped along in life while suffering and ultimately decompensating or taking their own life.

How are you working with the community to reduce stigma?

On a micro level, I work with patients and their families daily to help both parties understand that stigma is wrong. We work on education, whether it is through neuroanatomy or pharmacology, on why and how different mental health disorders can occur. On a macro level, I create and present to multiple community partners regarding mental health, psychiatry and stigma. I have presented to school districts, rotary clubs, current social workers and various churches. I have also visited with numerous lawmakers in Lansing to pursuit better protections for those with mental health disorders.

I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor as well as an Adverse Childhood Experiences speaker.

Hopefully, in the future I can be presenting to these same populations my own research and creating a level of change that I never could have dreamed.

What are some ways others can get involved?

The easiest and cheapest ways to become involved are from within. Change the dialogue that you perpetuate. That girl is not bipolar; she is a girl with bipolar disorder. The weather is not bipolar; it simply has changed. That homeless veteran is not a psycho; he is a veteran without stable housing that happens to have schizophrenia. Our words matter. Stopping yourself from derogatory descriptions sets an example for others that those words are not only not ok, but you will not tolerate them. We need a re-education as a society that each person matters, each story counts, and no one is a deficit.

What do you plan to do after you graduate?

Life is an adventure; it is not a bullet train to the end line. My current plan is to continue my work as a Psychiatric Physician Assistant in the Community Mental Health setting. I do not think I will ever be in a capacity that I am not working with underserved populations. I also have intentions to explore the needs of my patients and see where I can employ research for change to empower and improve their quality of life. Invisible diseases are still diseases. We all deserve to leave with dignity and respect, regardless of what genetic lottery we have been given.

What advice do you have for students considering a PhD in social work?

Your passion for truth must come before your passion for a degree. It is a sign of strength to admit weakness and defeat. The largest amount of growth comes when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. If you are ready and willing to humble yourself to the wealth of knowledge and the breadth of support you can receive at the WSU School of Social Work, then you need to follow your dreams and apply. There is no greater gift you can give yourself than to invest in yourself.

A fun fact many don't know about you

Both of my children were born through the art and science of surrogacy. I was unable to carry a child to term after multiple miscarriages and we had an adoption process we were pursuing but kept fizzling out - so we went on a crazy adventure to have our own biological children. I never knew anyone personally that had pursued it before, so every step along the way I had to teach myself and explore the laws, the rights, the norms - it was ALL new to me. But now we have two happy, healthy children!

Learn more about Sarah Scantamburlo and her research on her WSU profile. View more Social Work student spotlights.

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